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 Cattle Dogs, Blue Heelers,  Queensland Heelers, Blue Dogs, Buttheads... But never Dingos! "

Australian Cattle Dog Breed Profile

 Dog Fancy Magazine October 1996  By Gary Wilkes


20 years ago, I was managing a small humane society in Oregon. One day,  Emily Johnson, an animal control officer, asked me to step outside and see something in her patrol truck. As I peered into the cab, I saw, lying on the front seat, a small, speckled pup, sleeping soundly. The pup was rounded and  plump, and generally dog shaped -- nothing remarkable about that. What caught my attention was the pup's color. It was speckled with shades of black and tan that appeared a light shade of pastel blue.

 The "first" Tug at 5 weeks, in the lead, of course! (1983)

In an almost solemn whisper I asked, "What kind of a dog is that?"

 "She's my new Blue Heeler puppy," Said Emily, "Her name is Pebbles."

Pebbles gave me my first look at an Australian Cattle Dog (ACD) – and so began my love affair with the breed.


Australian Cattle Dog, is the precisely descriptive, but "Johnny come lately" name  for this working breed. "Down under", they usually drop the formalities and call them blueys, blue dogs, heelers, Queensland Heelers, or just plain Cattle Dogs. In  America, the less formal names are most often used, including the mistaken reference to them as "dingos."

For the owner of an ACD ,enjoying the dog is only part of the experience. You  must also enjoy answering the question, "what kind of dog is that?" and be willing to answer the other standard questions and comments that your dog will generate, like …

Tuggy at 6 weeks (1996)

 How many kinds of dog is that?

Oh, I know, you mean those blue eyed dogs, Australian Shepherds…(Usually this is said as the person is looking at a cattle dog, with very brown eyes!<G>)

Oh, its a Mad Max dog.

Oh, it's a Dingo!

Oh, look at the gray, he must be an old dog.

Oh, is that a new breed?

The answers, in order are: One, no, yes, no, "…not likely, mate" and no.

 While the breed is still rare in suburbia, country folk and working dog handlers have known of them for a long time. In places like Casa Grande, Arizona, or Pecos, Texas, you are likely to see a cattle dog patiently waiting in the bed of a  well-used pickup truck. You may look, but it is advised that you do not automatically touch – the breed standard includes the cautionary reminder that cattle dogs are supposed to be "suspicious of strangers."

 The first cattle dogs were brought to the United States in the 1950's. In the 1960's greater interest in the breed led to the formation of a breed club, and in 1980, full acceptance by the American Kennel Club. Cattle dogs are versatile and  tireless workers who have been adapted, successfully, to many jobs.

ACD's have been used as search and rescue dogs, drug and  bomb detectors, "termite detection" dogs, service dogs and, of course, their intended purpose – as cattle dogs. Many small time rodeos, livestock auctions and feed lots use cattle dogs to move  livestock from one place to another. In the early 1980's , two cattle dogs worked for the City of Everett, Washington, as "animal control dogs." Their efforts saved many lost and  frightened dogs from the typical fate of stray canines – death by automobile. Dr. Carmen Bastik, a veterinarian in Tempe, Arizona, is an accomplished rock climber – and so is her Cattle  Dog, Denali. With their great agility, hardy nature and ease of training, it is not surprising that ACD's are one of the most versatile working breeds in the world.

   Megan and her half brother "Tug"  perched "shotgun", ready to go on patrol. This was the first formal use of  dogs for urban animal control work.  Everett, Washington, 1984. (Note: The first Tug also had a tipped right ear)

 Like many breeds of dogs, the ACD was bred in a particular place, for a particular purpose. In the mid 1800's, Australia was a vast wilderness with few people and even fewer cities. The need to move and control range-savvy cattle  across rugged terrain and harsh climate was vitally important to the Australian economy. In the US, this job was taken over by a cult of accomplished horsemen – the cowboys. In Australia, the problem was comparable, but the American  solution was unworkable. The huge expanses of grazing land and sparse vegetation were indeed similar to the American Southwest. The problems associated with gathering and moving cows were identical on both continents but there was  one thing America had that Australia didn't – a surplus of men. At roughly the same time Americans were busy inventing "cow-boys", Australians were inventing "cow-dogs".

 When the first Europeans settled in Australia, they brought with them the domesticated animals that were so important to  their survival. Cattle adapted well to the harsh landscape of the "outback". The early settlers assumed that their European  working dogs would be as adaptable as their livestock. They were wrong. The settlers imported a variety of dogs to fill the need, with little success.

 One of the shortcomings of traditional European bred stock dogs, was their tendency to herd cows in the same way they herd sheep. Cows in Europe are closely tended from birth by humans and dogs and learn to adapt to the herding style of  sheep dogs. Australian cattle were allowed to graze and range freely until they were gathered and pushed to market. Aussie cows had to live by their wits, and be willing to defend their calves from marauding Dingos, the wild dogs of  Australia. European collies were unsuccessful because of the their lack of stamina in harsh conditions and their inability to  adapt to a totally different brand of cow. The many attempts to create an efficient and hardy cattle dog spanned over 50 years.

 For the history of this development, we are indebted to an Australian named Robert Kaleski. Born in 1877, he bred his first cattle dog at the age of 16 and continued breeding and chronicling them until his death at the age of 84. His book,  Australian Barkers and Biters, published in 1914, is still the most complete account of the breed's early history and development.

 According to Kaleski, in about 1850, Thomas Hall imported some "Highland Collies" from Scotland to satisfy the need for a good working cattle dog. These dogs were an improvement over other breeds, but ultimately confirmed the  limitations of "old world" herders.

"Being always used to turning sheep by barking at their heads, (they) couldn't understand why cattle won't work in the  same way. Those who survived the horns were put back on sheep, as their barking made the cattle break and rush like the dickens. " Wrote Kaleski.

 Frustrated by the failure of his expensive imports, Hall bred his "Blue Merle Highland Collie" to a Dingo. These semi-feral animals were considered pests by the European settlers, but were highly respected for several traits that  directly contributed to the ACD.

"Instead of yapping like the Collie, they had the old dingo style of creeping, silently up behind, and biting. These speckled  heelers are like small, thick-set dingos to look at, except in color." Wrote Keleski.

The result of Hall's cross created the foundation of what  would become the Australian Cattle Dog. Over the next fifty years, this simple collie and dingo hybrid was mixed with a number of other breeds. The thick-set body and powerful jaws are reported to come from Bull Terriers. It is said that  Dalmations were added to get a dog that would trot well with horses. A disputed genetic link leads to the Australian Kelpie, another stock dog from 'down under.' Because cattle dogs were bred to a working standard, there was little  concern for formal pedigrees or breeding records during the formation of the breed. Many people contributed to the breed's creation, through experimentation with other crosses. It is clear that by 1897, when Robert Kaleski  wrote the first breed standard, most of the experimentation had stopped and the modern Cattle Dog was an established breed.                                                                               Photo by Audrey Harvey                                                                                                       Queensland ,Australia (1996)

 For the inhabitants of eastern Australia, these dogs solved the problem of managing large "mobs" of cattle with very few  drovers. In the lives of the people who owned them, they became indispensable companions and partners. The folklore of the outback would be incomplete without tales of "blue dogs" and their unique characteristics.

 Nina Bondarenko, currently a service dog trainer in England, used Rottweilers to herd cattle, in her homeland of Australia. The local drovers would call her when they had a mob of cows in a small canyon, where cattle dogs could not  do their best work. After months of watching her Rotties do the dirty work, she had developed a low opinion of blue dogs, assuming that the drovers' bragging about the superiority of the breed was unwarranted. After several months of  gentle prodding, she reluctantly accepted a young cattle dog from a drover.

On the next day's herding, Nina's Rottweilers were moving the cattle perfectly – while the blue dog peered, intently, at  the cows from behind "mom". Nina spent the morning cursing herself for taking such a worthless canine. That afternoon, the Rottweilers were ranging on the far side of the herd, when a cow broke from the mob and rushed right at Nina.  Suddenly, her worthless heeler woke up and bolted directly toward the cow. The dog leaped through the air and nipped the cow on the neck, turning the animal back toward the mob. As the cow pivoted, the heeler nipped her heels and sent  her on her way. The blue dog's innate abilities had been lying dormant until the correct situation triggered his perfect response.

Bondarenko's experience echoed the words of Robert Kaleski, written more than 80 years before.

"The best time to see his value is when the cattle try to get away from the drover. Then, as the leaders swing away, with  the mob to follow, if they are successful – the drover whistles; like an arrow, his dog shoots up those leaders. Snap! Snap! at the throat of the one he wants to turn, and it swings from him as on a pivot, jamming the other leader over, as  well. Nip! Nip! at their heels; and they dart along the right track, followed by those behind, while the dogs stand watching at the weak point till all are past. No human being could work like that; the cattle would be tearing down the  wrong tracks, unheadable, before he would be halfway up to them."

Tales of cattle dogs saving their masters, handling maddened bulls, attempting (and failing, hilariously) to herd emus,  rescuing children and faithfully guarding their owners' property are as common as eucalyptus leaves.

To quote Di Gatehouse, from an article in Australia's National Dog magazine, "Akubra hats, Drizabones, Moleskins,  R.M. Williams, jeans and boots carrying his name, mountain cattle men, stock saddles and the Holden Ute. These are the icons that go together to make up the great Australian image. And of course, one had to have, either trotting faithfully  behind at heel, or perched up in the back of the ute, a real live "bluey." (To help with the translation, a "ute" is a utility vehicle, like a pickup truck or lorry.)


 Photos courtesy of  Audrey Harvey


 In appearance, the ACD is a unique blend of size, shape and color. The first thought that most people have is that this dog looks unlike any dog they have ever seen before. It has the face and stockiness of a Norwegian Elkhound on the  frame of a scaled down German Shepherd. It has the short, dense coat of a Smooth Collie with the color of a Blue Tick Hound. Like the native Australian Platypus, it looks like several creatures rolled up into one.

 Color: The most obvious feature of the ACD is the color of the coat. Blue or red pastels, called speckled, and the occasional patch of true color, usually on the face. They can range from almost pure black to almost pure white and any  shade in between. The lighter ones may appear ghostlike, when compared to the "true color" of Labrador Retrievers and  Rottweilers. An unusual aspect of cattle dogs is that they are not blue, at birth. The pups are, born white, with any patches of true color. In a reverse of normal expectations, young Cattle Dogs darken to their adult blue or red speckled  color.

Size: In size, cattle dogs are medium sized and thick set. Their stocky build is a pretty clear confirmation of the infusion of  Bull Terriers in the mix. The males can weigh from 40 to 70 pounds, with females weighing 30 to 45. Males are supposed to be between 18 and 20 inches high, while females should measure between 17 and 19 inches. They are  amazingly agile dogs with the ability to spin on a dime or leap in any direction – the physical attributes necessary for herding reluctant cattle. Above all, they give the appearance of great strength, coupled with agility.

 The great physical strength of the cattle dogs and their seeming indifference to the hardships of driving cattle is legendary. John and Mary Holmes, in their book, The Complete Australian Cattle Dog, describe a cattle dog that was launched by  the kick of a disgruntled cow. The dog hit the ground and bounded right back at the cow, seemingly indifferent to the experience. While this fortitude makes them ideal for people with active lifestyles, many cattle dogs show few signs when  the are injured or ill. Veterinarians who are not familiar with the breed may be fooled by the lack of symptoms. An owner must be very observant to notice the subtle signs of illness or injury.

Coat:  ACD's have a relatively short coat, with a thicker undercoat. The undercoat is usually a mousy brown color. The significance of this undercoat is that cattle dogs shed four colors of hair; black, white, tan and mousy brown. Unless  you love earth toned plaids and herring bone fabrics, your cattle dog is not going to match your furniture, or your clothes.  If you demand an immaculate house, demand a different type of dog. Where cattle dogs live, "dust-a-roos" aren't far behind.

Ears: The ears of a cattle dog are supposed to be "full prick", (fully erect) and set wide on the head. Some puppies have their ears up by five weeks of age, while some are slower to develop. In working areas, the occasional flop eared  dog is usually a sign of experimental breeding.

Tail: A common and mistaken practice in the US is docking the tails of cattle dog puppies. When watching a working  cattle dog, the advantage of the tail is obvious. Well known for their leaping ability, the dog's tail acts as a counterbalance and rudder.

Living with an ACD: If there is a true statement about Cattle Dogs, it would be that they do not do well as backyard pets. These dogs are meant to work with people, or at the very least, be with people. In the absence of regular  work , isolated in an urban backyard, they invariably get into trouble.

In a posh Sydney, Australia neighborhood, police were stymied by an outbreak of senseless tire slashings. The culprit  went undetected for several weeks as the tires of Rolls Royces and Mercedes were repeatedly flattened. When a surveillance camera pointed to the guilty party, it turned out to be a bored heeler who enjoyed the rush of compressed  air that followed his forceful bites.

Dr. Audrey Harvey, a veterinarian who lives near Brisbane, in Queensland, Australia, owns two cattle dogs, and has several cattle dogs as patients.

 "By far the biggest difficulties I see with heelers are behavioral problems due to boredom and lack of exercise. Because  they are such good watchdogs, people get them and leave them in the yard to look after the place, totally ignoring their need for exercise and mental stimulation. "

 Another common problem for city heelers is their natural tendency to protect the family and home. Without training and direction from their owners, they often pose a problem to letter carriers, guests and especially, strangers. In parts of the  rural US, it is a normally accepted practice to avoid getting too close to an ACD protected vehicle.

To avoid this tendency, early socialization is critically important, especially with children. As a general rule, a dog that  instinctively chases and bites other animals may not automatically be passive with screaming, running children. While ACD's are very adaptable dogs who can be taught to suppress many of their natural tendencies – they must be taught.  Left to make their own decisions, heelers will heel almost anything. They are perfectly comfortable herding children or family members around the house, or controlling the behavior of surprised guests.

Training: Australian Cattle Dogs are highly trainable. As a trainer and behaviorist, I would rank them as the most adaptable dogs I have ever worked with. Cattle dogs do not respond well to forceful training methods. Audrey Harvey  discovered this through using traditional training methods on her own dogs.

"We have 2 Australian Cattle Dogs, which were trained with check (choke)  chains, because that's all we knew  and that's all we were taught. We gave  up obedience after my bitch Cody gained her CD title 18 months ago. We got  sick of correction training, and left the club ."


After switching to clicker training, the results were dramatic.

"Cody in particular was a dog who really resisted change to the extent that  if we took a different path in our  evening walk, she would get quite stressed  and sit down and not want to go the different way. Since starting positive  reinforcement training, she appears so much more confident and enthusiastic,  not just towards training.  She even goes out at night for a walk and doesn't  try to tow me the familiar route. When we do go out to do a bit  of training,  she positively struts, with her tail up and her little chest puffed out.  I am happy not just with the better  results I'm getting from training, but  from the attitude change that is affecting everything we do together."


The AKC breed standard describes the Australian Cattle Dog as, "Ever alert, extremely intelligent watchful, courageous  and trustworthy, with an implicit devotion to duty, making it an ideal dog." Like most breed standards, these glowing accolades tend to appear inflated and obviously exaggerated. While I don't know if every cattle dog possesses these  attributes, mine sure does.


Country of Origin: Australia AKC Group: Herding

Function: Primarily cattle herding

Lifespan: 12 - 18 years

 Watchdog: To excess


Blue - blue, blue mottled, or blue speckled. Patches of pure black or tan are permissible on the head. Black markings on the body are not desirable.

 Red: An even red speckle, all over. Darker red markings on the head are permissible. Red markings on the body are not desirable.

 Coat type: A smooth, double coat. The undercoat is short and dense, and should not show through the outer coat.

Professional Grooming: Not needed

Home Grooming : Periodic bathing, and regular brushing.

 Activity level: High

Intelligence: High

Trainability: Very high, with positive motivational methods. Cattle dogs do not usually adapt well to forceful training methods.

 Good with Children: Yes and no. Most commonly they are extremely good with family members.

Good with other pets: Yes, with proper introductions.

 Home environment: House with fenced yard, daily exercise and attention. These dogs are happiest with people – inside the house.

Attitude toward strangers: The cattle dog's tendency to be wary of strangers is legendary.

Character: Devoted, independent, tough, adaptable.

Club: Australian Cattle Dog Club of America

Internet Home page: http://www.cattledog.com

 Membership Coordinator: Katherine Buetow  * 2003B Melrose Dr. * Champaign, IL 61820* 217-359-0284

For Breed information, please send $5.00 to cover the cost of mailing materials.

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